Friday, June 06, 2003

I went to a very small school in rural Ontario for grades 6 through 8. There were only eight girls in my class and sixteen boys. Most of the kids were white, rural Ontario natives, living in small towns or on farms. There were four who stood out in my class as being possibly wierd, to my memory. The first was a Jehovah's Witness and he was required to sit out during music class and participate less in activities relating to Christmas and Easter. Then there was Wilma, an old-order Mennonite, who had to wear a dress every day, even during gym class when she wore shorts underneath her small-print floral dress and ran fiercely around the field hockey field wielding that curved hardwood stick like a weapon. I was quite odd too -- I don't think there were any other kids from a different province who were bookworms and atheists. I "talked funny", "like a dictionary". Finally, there was Corey, the black kid, the only kid who routinely got better marks than me in class. He stood out more because he was at the top of the class than because he was black. Although he was the only non-white kid, Corey was in many ways perfectly normal. He was certainly better integrated into the classroom social structure than I was, or than that poor Jehovah's Witness.

I've been thinking about Corey lately because I just finished reading "Losing The Race" by John McWhorter. This book discusses the black American cultural distrust or emotional distance from reading books and enjoying intellectual activity and achievement. Black kids apparently may get teased for "acting white" if they enjoy books or intellectual pursuits. It's a well-written book that focuses on reasoned arguments, and I enjoyed it. In this entry, I'm not so much making a comment on the book as riffing off the thoughts it triggered.

"Losing the Race" made me wonder how much different Corey's experience would have been had he grown up in the US, instead of Canada. He was adopted by white parents (who had two of their own kids, plus three other adopted kids of various shades) who clearly valued education, but what would have happened had he been immersed in American black youth culture? I'd like to think he would have excelled anyway. He was motivated (which I wasn't during those years, at least not motivated enough to actually work to get A+ grades since I was getting A grades without trying). He was proud of his intellectual achievement, and perhaps a little jealous of his status. As an interloper, an outsider, a loser who yet constantly threatened his previously undisputed top-of-the-class position, I suspect Corey didn't like me. That's too bad, because I always kind of liked him, and wish I knew what he's doing now. I thought we might have something in common that I didn't find in any other kid in my class -- certainly not my best friend, Jenny. Although Jenny was terrific and I needed her social skills advice desperately, in our graduation speeches (we each wrote a speech about a classmate) she claimed she liked me even though I read encyclopias. That wasn't true, by the way -- I merely consulted encyclopedias, and browsed them from time to time. Heh.

That school had caring and dedicated white teachers, both male and female. There was one main teacher for each of the four grades. I remember Mrs. Rose Marigold, the fifth-grade teacher, pink and fluffy-haired and maternal. Mr. Wilson was the sixth-grade teacher who was wierd and threatening, but he took us all on a riverside night-time hike and mass sleepover associated with reading Tom Sawyer, which was way cool. I remember the music teacher, who was an erratic and shrill disciplinarian but truly loved music and dragged the entire school through a full musical production every year. The eight-grade teacher Mr. Siddall was the coolest because he treated the eighth graders almost as adults, or so we felt, which combined with being the oldest in the school, meant that eighth-graders ruled. There were a few other teachers but remember this was a very small school. Despite that, we had a fair number of activities: basketball and volleyball teams which competed against other local schools, an arts publication that I wrote a couple stories for and drew a couple pictures for, and the yearly musicals. There was a bare idea of both remedial and enrichment classes in this school, I can recall once or twice going to talk to somebody who was supposed to provide enrichment services for our school as well as several others but it was really rather useless. The only student in my class who was involved in notably enriching activities was Corey. In eighth grade he took ninth-grade math to get a leg up on high school the following year. We both however competed in the province-wide yearly math contests for top math students, where I probably did better than him.

Many things changed the following year when we all got bussed to the township high school. Now there were over a thousand students in grades nine through "OAC" year (equivalent to a thirteenth grade, a now-defunct extra year of high school unique to Ontario -- stands for Ontario Academic Credit and supposedly prepares students for university). Now my poor social skills really crippled me, because the students in the smaller school had truly been kind and tolerant. Maybe the class was just too small for anybody to tolerate actual meanness. In high school however, with many more students, particularly thirteen-year olds in the throes of teenage crises, anxious to establish their roles in a much bigger social environment, I experienced real cruelty. (Wilma and the Jehovah's Witness did not come to high school. Wilma had to quit school altogether due to her Mennonite church rules.) Corey did not, I believe, experience cruelty (although nor did he perpetrate it).

Interestingly, both Corey and I were relatively short yet capable basketball players, at least capable enough to make the school teams. We both had no fear, dribbling the ball right under the tall guards and getting bruises as those kids came down from the rebound with their elbows out and into our faces. We both continued to get high grades, although Corey now savvily downplayed this. He made his way into the truly popular crowd. I made friends with Nathan (where are you, Nathan?) who was as geeky and excluded as me but shared a love of science fiction. I also made friends among a group of serious Christians who found me, again, odd (atheist) yet acceptable, and they even gave up on trying to convert me. I guess I benefitted from some of the high moral standards inculcated in these exceedingly Christian student group members, although I recall their high moral standards and spirit of acceptance didn't extend to gays. We knew one likely homosexual teen from another high school -- one of these extremely Christian kids declared he wouldn't let that homo into his house and another was sure his parents wouldn't either. So real social exclusion was for geeks, like me, despite the cachet of making the basketball team, and gays.

I was the only girl in the computer science class in grade ten, moreover I was taking it a year early. The teacher was a gentle intelligent Indian (from India, not native). He bemusedly recognized that I was the best programmer in the class by far, getting me involved in programming competitions and extracurricular projects. He also recognized that as the only girl in the class I was a serious distraction, when I finished the hour's work in the first 20 minutes and then hung around chatting with whoever else wasn't programming. "Lisa, why don't you let the guys get back to work?" I guess when there are no other females around at all, and when the popular kids aren't there to see you do it, it's OK to talk to the geek girl. I had my first taste of socio-sexual power in grade ten, when I was fifteen. OK, so "socio-sexual power" is vastly overstating it. I got the second-highest score in the year's math competition in the entire county. The awards ceremony was an evening affair with dinner in Waterloo. I was sick and tired of being "the geek" but didn't know how to break out of the pigeonhole I found myself in, so I considered not going. Instead, my mom advised me to wear a low-necked top and short skirt. I remember exactly how the top and skirt looked because that evening I received the first positive attention ever -- from seventeen year old boys, no less! It was just me and a couple guys having a mature conversation, with them appearing interested in what I was saying and showing approval in their smiles and genial tones, but this was entirely new for me -- the first time that attention was paid by boys to me at the same time that other girls (even geekier!) were present. The popular girls and boys had been flirting for years, but not me. This evening clearly made a big impression on me -- for the next few years I still achieved high grades in school, but now I also cultivated short skirts (previously non-existent in my wardrobe which consisted mostly of corduroy pants) and low-necked or tight shirts. This didn't change my popularity at my high school but it worked somewhat with people who didn't have pre-conceived notions of me.

Back to Corey. Although I now never interacted with him, and we probably didn't have many classes together, it was impossible to ignore him. In grade twelve he ran for student body president. His campaign was supported by many and it was really clever. He was still the only black student in the entire grade, and at times the only black kid in school. In this nearly uniformly white atmosphere, he appropriated the slogans of black civil rights activists: huge dramatic posters with "Black is Back" and "Black Power" were strung in our hallways and cafeteria. I believe most high school students had no awareness of the symbology behind these slogans. It was simply a campaign to remind everybody that Corey was the obvious, best candidate for the job, so obviously it didn't need to be stated explicitly -- and as a reminder that he was cooler than anybody, since coolness was the real winning characteristic in high school elections. When the election finally came, it was no contest -- he won handily.

So what am I saying? I guess I'm saying a certain level of discrimination is normal. Kids just do it to certain other kids. I minded at the time, I don't now. I found more of "my own kind" eventually, in youth orchestra, then in university. It's one of the challenges we might have to face. What Corey did with his high school life was good - whatever challenges he faced, though they weren't the same ones I faced, I know all teens find the teen years difficult. He succeeded in school and on the basketball team, developed leadership skills and went on to university. In the meantime he wasn't cruel, at least not to me. What you start with matters, and so does what you're given, but what you do with your life matters so much more.

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